BWW Review: HAMLET, Almeida Theatre

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Who sees what?

Two security guards catch - well, who exactly? - on their grainy black-and-white feed as they monitor the grey grimness of Castle Elsinore? Hamlet sees, addresses and touches this apparition - for him, his dead father's ghost is as corporeal as his living, despised uncle usurper Claudius, who has taken a besotted Queen Gertrude to wife after so short a mourning.

Later, Hamlet holds a gun to the King's head, but does the King really see Hamlet as he confesses - is Hamlet actually just seeing all this in a dream of the kind Freud identified as unfulfilled wishes? When Claudius sees his own murder re-enacted by players, we're up close and personal with him, his guilt etched on his face, which is caught on video blown up across a composite monitors, the state's eye turned on itself. The screen's the thing these days.

All that technology, ambiguity and negotiated visibility - glass doors slide, curtains are drawn and opened in Hildegard Bechtler's "castle as mid-range international hotel" set - is balanced against a wholly credible humanity that runs through every single person in the doomed court. It seems strange to have to write that, but in Hamlet one can often feel like one is observing emotional archetypes rather than people, as the horror closes in.

Andrew Scott's Prince is no sullen teen continually talking himself out of starting his homework - he's a man who is in a sexual relationship with Ophelia (a initially gigglingly knowing Jessica Brown Findlay) and may well have once been in such with his "friend" Guildenstern (a doe-eyed Amakor Okafor). He has the maturity and confidence required to make self-deprecating jokes that look for a laugh, not just a wince and, when he speaks directly to the audience all but standing in the front row, we see him as a friend driven to terrible thoughts and deeds, not a Prince isolated in a cold castle. He's not quite an everyman, but he's no cosseted royal either. Had he delivered his soliloquies as a series of tweets, it would have infuriated purists, but it would hardly have been a surprise.

Angus Wright's Claudius is stiff-backed in statecraft but boldly passionate with his Queen, his coup gaining him everything he wants were it not for Hamlet's murderous madness. Juliet Stevenson is torn between new husband and son and, if it's hard to credit that she cannot see until it's too late that Claudius has bumped off one alpha male and will surely do the same to the only other one left at court, then I suppose love is blind.

The principals get strong support, in which Peter Wight stands out with his turn as pompous Polonius, dragged offstage as he had to be dragged to the point of any conversation. Luke Thompson gives a testosterone-fuelled Laertes, whose lust for revenge is as instant as Hamlet's is delayed. Calum Findlay's reluctant spy, Rosencrantz gets plenty of laughs, a sardonic gooseberry as Hamlet and Guildenstern embrace yet again.

Robert Icke's production is not afraid to deploy a trick or two, but it's grounded in characterisation that is never forced, never overly influenced by the thousands of previous productions. There's a freshness in the work that brings out its complexities and challenges anew - for once, I felt I could relax and not spend the near-four-hour running time continually wondering why everyone was doing what they were doing (or not doing) on stage. In turn, that allowed the words to get under my skin - and the thrill of seeing so much of the English language being created in real time is exhilarating.

If this Hamlet gets so much right, it's not perfect. I found the occasional use of Bob Dylan's music incongruous and intrusive, loudly jarring. It's a long haul to the first interval too and then a mere hop to the next one, which may work dramatically, but the queues (for the women's lavatories especially) suggested that it was a physical as well as mental trial to last so long before a comfort break.

That said, nobody expects a Hamlet billed at three hours 45 minutes to be a walk in the park. But, led by Andrew Scott's warm, intimate portrayal of incipient madness, the action is compelling, the psychology and language revealed, Shakespeare's lightning bolt of a modern man, flawed and floundering but so very human, hitting home with visceral force. It may be a little early to say so, but if you see one Shakespeare this year, it should probably be this one.

Hamlet continues at the Almeida Theatre until 15 April.

Photo Manuel Harlan



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From This Author Gary Naylor